Love People, Use Things, Worship God

Our Q&A with Arthur C. Brooks

Mockingbird / 8.17.21

This interview is featured in the newest issue of The Mockingbird, our print magazine, now available to pre-order.

It’s rare to find a body of work so political yet so full of grace as that of Arthur C. Brooks. Often connecting the impact of national politics to personal wellbeing, Brooks’ writing is digestible, direct, and bolstered by a good deal of contemporary research—not to mention Christian ethics.

In his book, Love Your Enemies (2019), Brooks observes that America has developed a “culture of contempt.” Anger, he specifies, is different than contempt: “While anger says, ‘I care about this,’ … contempt says, ‘You are beneath caring about.’” He is referring to the bitter political divide, which, as NPR discovered in one 2020 survey, has ended even decades-long friendships.

But Brooks writes with hope. His diagnoses never lack prescriptions, most of which are remarkable in the way they turn platitudes on their heads. For example, he suggests that rather than try to agree more, we should celebrate disagreement, as it’s the secret sauce to democracy. If you can be “grateful that we don’t live in a one-party state,” he writes, “then by definition you must be grateful for the people who disagree with you.”

Image by Bill Vaccaro.

In April 2020, Brooks began contributing a regular column to the Atlantic entitled, “How to Build a Life.” The national conversation, by that point, had grown panicked and despairing (see: pandemic), but Brooks’ content remained constructive. On the Mockingbird website, we found ourselves quoting him endlessly.

In one essay he quips, “Failure set me free,” and in another, “Don’t trade love for anything.” Elsewhere he contends that money can “buy happiness”—when we give it away, and spend our wealth on others. Longtime readers of Mockingbird know that we rarely publish instructions for anything, but as you will see in his answers here, Brooks’ directives direct us toward the heart, and the things that matter most.

It seems like our society is replete with maxims and programs for how to be happier—injunctions about self-care, promotion for self-help books, etc.—but it’s unclear whether such instruction really helps. Why do you think happiness proves so elusive?

Marketing tactics appeal to four basic idols in life: money, power, pleasure, and fame. But when it comes to happiness, these appeals are empty promises. We get onto a happiness treadmill where we are forever chasing an elusive prize, while the deepest needs of our souls go unmet. What we need is to reprioritize our values to the four pillars of happiness: faith, family, friends, and meaningful work.

You wrote recently that a billionaire is no more likely to be happy than a less wealthy person on a stable income. Why is that? And is there a way in which money can actually work against happiness?

By alleviating problems of poverty, money tends to decrease our unhappiness, which is a separate phenomenon from actually increasing your happiness. That unhappiness-lowering benefit tops out at somewhere around $75k per year, though.

Money can lower our happiness when it is being pursued for the sake of itself. Chasing money will cause us to want more and more. But happiness is a great equalizer. It doesn’t necessarily care if you go from rich to super-rich; your brain will adapt quickly to your new surroundings.

In Love Your Enemies, you write that “America is addicted to political contempt.” Is that still the case?

There aren’t many signs of improvement, but I’m hopeful. I think Americans are weary from the pandemic and the isolation. Our social fabric is weak, and the divisive political discourse adds insult to injury. 

But we are at a huge moment of opportunity for people to come out of the pandemic in a new mindset. Politics and public policy are downstream from culture. The best way to build a politics of love is to start with the people in your neighborhood. We can transform our politics of fear to a politics of love by taking this moment to reconnect with those we disagree with and by willing their good. 

Is there any connection between our love of money and our contemptuous discourse?

Your material happiness can be thought of as your wants divided by your haves. If our mindset is to increase our wants, we will focus on accumulating, consuming, and taking. The political climate of fear has convinced most Americans that the politician on the other side is out to take your stuff and you need to protect it. It’s a vicious cycle where accumulating more stuff produces greed, which makes you want more stuff like fame, pleasure, and in this case, power. When people become protective of their stuff, they have a zero-sum mentality, and lash out at their perceived rivals.

In so much of your writing, you’re debunking cultural myths — for example, the importance of dreaming big or being perfect or becoming hyper-specialized in a given field. Which of our culture’s many such myths is the most insidious and most urgently needs to be called into question?

There are so many insidious myths to choose from! One big one is that we can meet our needs for social contact with social media. It is completely false, and in fact, heavy social media use will leave us lonelier than we were.

Another myth is that we can make social progress by “canceling” people with whom we disagree. Cancel culture, which is rooted in intolerance for ideological differences, is a huge source of misery all around.

You’ve written quite a bit about the “scorecard” mentality, where everything we do is about earning figurative points. Where do you think that mentality comes from? And what are some problems with this way of looking at life?

The idea that you are behind or ahead in life is a direct result of our tendency to compare ourselves to others. It’s about as old as ancient philosophers bragging and saying my brain is bigger than your brain. 

Society holds up extrinsic rewards all around us. These extrinsic rewards—like a comfortable home or academic achievement—are typically the result of hard work or success. But they are bad measures of our intrinsic satisfaction or enjoyment.

The false promises of extrinsic rewards are more money, fame, and pleasure, but they undermine the satisfaction of meaningful work and a deep sense of purpose. The research shows that when we busy ourselves pursuing extrinsic rewards, we experience less of a happiness boost than when we are motivated to pursue things simply for the joy they bring. It’s also important to position your intrinsic motivation in a way that serves others’ needs. 

Illustration by Lehel Kovács.

Within Christianity we see so many different approaches to money, ranging from politically conservative capitalism to Catholic socialism like that of Dorothy Day. In your view, is there a “Christian” approach to money?

We all know the words from the New Testament in the first letter of Saint Paul to his young disciple Timothy: “Money is the root of all evil.” This sounds like Paul is saying we should renounce worldly wealth. But he isn’t, as we see when we put the quote in context.

Here’s the full verse: “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” The core issue isn’t money, in other words; it’s the attachment to the money that creates problems in our lives.

The world gives us a simple formula for living: Love things, use people, worship yourself. This is completely upside down. The right formula is: Love people, use things, worship God.

Is there a particular Bible verse or scene that has informed your work? If so, what, and why?

Matthew 5:44: Love your enemies. This has changed my perspective on everything. It has led me, in the current culture of contempt and polarization, to completely reorient my career to living out and teaching this verse using all of my capabilities.

Do you have any reading recommendations, particularly for an audience interested in this web of faith, happiness, and money?

Read The Way of a Pilgrim. It’s not an economics book. Rather, it’s a book that helps us understand not that money is evil, but that the material world is simply tangential to our walk on earth.

You can pre-order The Mockingbird here. Hard copies will ship at the end of August!


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